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FCC Will Vote on Easing Translator Site Limits for AMs

Draft order is part of Pai’s pilot project on transparency

The Federal Communications Commission next month will consider giving AM radio broadcasters in the United States more flexibility in siting their FM translators.

A proposed report and order taking that step is one of two draft items that new Chairman Ajit Pai has presented to other commissioners for a vote next month. NAB supports the idea, and based on recent commission history the proposal seems likely to pass.

Pai announced the two draft items publicly, saying he was doing so as a pilot project that he hopes will become commission practice to provide more public insight. The other is a notice of proposed rulemaking seeking comment on allowing TV broadcasters to use the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard.

The AM proposal is part of the broader FCC AM “revitalization” effort that Pai has supported. The FCC had requested comments about the idea of relaxing the rules stating where an FM fill-in translator rebroadcasting an AM station may be located.

The draft order to be considered states, “Having now opened and closed two filing windows in which over 1,000 applications were granted to acquire and relocate FM translators to rebroadcast AM stations, we believe it is desirable to act on the translator siting proposal expeditiously, so as to provide these window applicants maximum flexibility in providing service to their communities and nearby areas.” Other revitalization proposals would be dealt with later.

The current rule requires that an FM translator rebroadcasting an AM station must be located so that its 60 dBμ contour is within the smaller of the AM station’s 2 millivolts per meter daytime contouror a 25-mile radius from the AM transmitter.The FCC earlier proposed to change this to the greater of the 2 mV/m daytime contour or 25-mile radius, but with a limitation that the translator’s 1 mV/m coverage contour could not extend beyond a 40-mile radius of the AM site.

The commission says it heard overwhelming support for easing the restriction but with various options discussed. The change to be voted on in February drops the idea of a 40-mile limitation and says the protected contour for an FM translator station is its predicted 1 mV/m contour. If it takes this path, the FCC will be accepting an argument made by NAB and others that the 40-mile limitation could be unduly restrictive. The draft says the commission aims to provide flexibility to an AM using a cross-service translator to serve its core market “while not extending its signal beyond the station’s core service area.”

Some argued that eliminating the 40-mile limitation enables extension of service beyond an AM station’s core community of license; but the draft replies that the FCC has already said that the 2 mV/m contour in all cases constitutes an AM station’s primary service area.“In light of the inclusion of that contour as one of the limits to translator coverage in the modified rule, we do not believe it is necessary to impose the 40-mile limitation to ensure that the use of FM translators will not result in such extensions of service.”

Meanwhile, commenting on the whole idea of publishing draft orders as a trial run, Pai stated, “An NPRM and a Report and Order are essentially the beginning and the end of a conversation that an administrative agency has with the American public about regulation. One announces a proposal and asks for public input; the other takes stock of that input and announces a decision. I have deliberately chosen one NPRM and one Order for purposes of this test run.”

The National Association of Broadcasters issued a statement in support of the two drafts as well as the early announcement idea: “Chairman Pai deserves credit for departing from the past practice of both Republican and Democratic-controlled commissions, and publicly releasing the proposals early to inject greater transparency in the FCC rulemaking process.”

Read the draft order (PDF).